Auckland Zoo hopes horse will befriend elephant

March 22, 2011

Auckland Zoo is trialing a horse companion for its sole elephant, Burma.

Burma's new equine buddy-to-be, Cherry. © Auckland Zoo
It is taking the step while it looks at longer-term options for getting her back with elephants.

The zoo has been working hard to ensure Burma has varied and interesting days since the death of her companion, Kashin, in August 2009.

The zoo says it is monitoring Burma closely and feels she is doing well. She has daily workouts and walks around the zoo, with hikes up into the zoo's steep forested areas.

It is estimated she walks 8-12 kilometres every day.

Burma has close bonds with her keepers, the zoo says. It says it is now trialing a horse companion, Cherry, as equines have similar social structures to elephants.

The trial acknowledges that Burma is likely to be on her own for another six to 12 months, while the zoo sets up concrete plans.

"Burma is continuing to cope extremely well, but elephants are highly social and intelligent animals, and shouldn't spend long periods of time on their own," explained the zoo's life sciences manager, Kevin Buley.

"Given the similarity in social structure of the two species, we've worked alongside equine experts to select Cherry, an 11-year-old mare.

"We believe she has the right temperament to provide a great match for Burma."

The zoo is talking with specialist consultants to ensure the highest level of welfare for both animals, and to give the greatest chance of success.

The introduction is being carefully managed through a gradual integration to minimise any potential risks to the horse, Burma, or her keepers.

Auckland Zoo's sole elephant, Burma.
© Auckland Zoo
Buley says the first step, before any kind of contact with Burma, will just be getting Cherry used to the elephant area and the zoo grounds.

Depending on how the relationship develops, it is hoped that Cherry will be included in most of Burma's daily activities, including walks through the Zoo and up into the bush.

The zoo's initial plan is to bring in two elephants to be companions for Burma, and as a start to building up to a breeding herd of 10 elephants.

Eventually, it aims to house bulls and cows, mothers, aunties and youngsters.

Elephants would come from a facility such as another zoo or rescue and breeding centre, never from the wild.

On hearing of Burma's situation, representatives of the Sri Lankan government approached Auckland Zoo, and it is now exploring the possibility of sourcing Asian elephants from an elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka.